Richard F. Taflinger, PhD

Chapter Nine:

Words in a Row: Writing

Arguably the greatest leap humans have made since they learned to talk has been the development of talking at a distance (no, I don't mean the telephone).

Sometime before 3,000 B.C.E. someone realized that he had to talk to someone who couldn't hear his voice. Perhaps he needed to order something. Perhaps he needed to know how much something was going to cost him in trade. Perhaps he was upset with someone and didn't trust a messenger to adequately and scathingly discuss that someone's personal habits, ancestry and hopes for an afterlife. For whatever reason, he had to find a way of communicating at a distance. He had several choices, none of which were truly satisfactory. This person, a Phoenician, started the process of creating something that has changed the world.


To many people, writing is as easy as, well, A-B-C. However, just how easy is that? Let's take a look at where A-B-C, the alphabet we use, came from.


Scattered throughout the world are cave paintings and pictographs. Their exact meaning and purpose is unknown. The may have religious significance, as parts of rituals to gods. They may have been used for sympathetic magic, to attract the animals depicted, or to guarantee the success of the hunt by showing its outcome. It is also possible that they had practical uses, such as for calendars or records of war or hunting success.

There does seem to be a line of development over the centuries and millennia. The earliest paintings seem to be just pictures of things, such as animals or people standing. They appear to be examples, maybe teaching tools -- this is what a mastodon looks like.

Eventually the style of the pictures changed. The animals and people were shown in motion, as though they were doing something. It may be animals fighting, running or dying, or people dancing or hunting. What was depicted were events.

Finally, a series of events were shown. They appear to tell stories of hunts and ceremonies. Such story pictures may have been reminders, instructions, magic, or religious.

The disadvantage of paintings and pictographs is expressed in the above paragraph -- nobody knows what they signify, certainly not what they did to the creators. Story-pictures are totally subjective and clear only to those people who know what each picture or series of pictures is supposed to represent. If you don't know the story they're useless, or worse, open to misinterpretation.


It was probably the Sumerians who first invented a way of transmitting information beyond the human voice. Their method is called cuneiform.

Cuneiform is written by pressing the end of a wedge-shaped tool into soft clay, creating various designs composed of triangles, and letting it harden. It may have started as a method of counting, keeping track of anything from heads of sheep to bushels of grain.

The Sumerians were also artisans, well aware of and capable of producing pictures and sculpture. They undoubtedly used pictographs and picture-stories as '"writing". Such forms are not easily transportable and require greater skill than the average person possesses to produce. Someone eventually began copying pictographs by cuneiform. In this way it was possible for the average person to draw a pictograph, and the dried mud tablets were easily transportable. Drawing anything composed only of little triangles, however, leads quickly to stylization and abstraction. The pictographs looked less and less like what they were supposed to represent. In addition, the pictographs still stood for words or ideas, and if the symbols became unrecognizable, they were useless for communication.


The Egyptians made a great leap forward in the development of an alphabet. Exactly when they began using hieroglyphics is not known, but when the tomb of the first true Egyptian king was discovered, characters were found that date back to 4777 B.C.E. That's nearly 7,000 years.

Egyptian hieroglyphics started as pictographs, showing pictures of things. Some, however, were eventually used for ideas as well. For example, an eagle stood for an eagle (a thing) or the soul (an idea or concept).

A major difficulty with such a system of writing is you need to know what the picture is representing. Much can be taken from context, but occasionally there must be added symbols to explain the other symbols.

The greatest step toward clear writing was to use hieroglyphics for sounds rather than things. In this ways words could be constructed from hieroglyphics that stood for the sounds of syllables or even individual sound parts of a word such as in (a syllable) or l (a sound part). With this innovation it became possible to write any word that could be said.

One would think that finally true writing had arrived. However, such was not the case. The Egyptians never took the final step toward true writing by eliminating all thing or idea pictures and use only sound part pictures. The Egyptians had an incredible, nearly religious respect for tradition. This led to an incredibly complex system of writing.

First, there was a different symbol for each word or sound. More than three thousand characters have been found, although only about three hundred were commonly used. Second, of perhaps of greater importance, is that five different systems of writing were used all at the same time. In the same message there would be pictures that stood for things (a token standing for a token); pictures that stood for ideas (a setting sun standing for death); sound pictures that stood for whole words (an animal's hide for approach); sound pictures for syllables (a whip for mes); and pictures for letter sounds (a mouth, ro in Egyptian, standing for r). Thus any sentence could be extremely complicated because of such a mix of styles.

Finally, hieroglyphics are extemely slow and cumbersome to use. The drawings are detailed, and, since so many are needed to make meaning clear, it takes a long time to write something. For example, the word abwas spelled with only two letters. However, when it mean "thirst" three extra characters were added as explanation: ab was spelled with a leaf and a leg (letter sound pictures) followed by a jumping dog, wavy lines for water, and a man pointing to his mouth.

In addition, the Egyptians never got around to spelling anything the same way every time. On the Rosetta Stone the word "writing" occurs four times. The first time it is spelled out, then explained by a picture of a man writing. The second and third times it is pictured by a reed and an ink bottle. The fourth time it is spelled out again, but this time another way. Add that the same symbol could have many different meanings (ab could mean twenty different things, ha forty) and hieroglyphic writing becomes extremely difficult to work with.

There were attempts at simplification, steps that help lead to true alphabets for writing. As writing became more and more important and used for more and more things, the priests and scribes who had to do the writing started altering and simplifying the symbols and characters they used. This is called hieratic writing. Thus the owl (letter sound m), originally a detailed drawing with head, eyes, wings, body and feet, evolved into a symbol that resembles the Arabic number 3.

It is at this point that a true alphabet could be invented.


The Phoenicians were the great traders of the ancient world. Flourishing between 1200 B.C.E. and 876 B.C.E., they sailed everywhere, buying from and selling to everyone. (Herodotus, the great Greek historian, reports, but did not believe himself, that the Phoenicians sailed completely around Africa, from their homeland in present day Syria to Babylon at the north end of the Persian Gulf. However, evidence that Herodotus himself provides seems to prove the claim.)

The Phoenicians needed some system to keep track of their business: who sold what to whom when and where. More, the system had to be clear, simple to learn and use under less then ideal conditions, transportable, and unambiguous. They were, of course, aware of Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics, but neither system satisfied any of the conditions that the Phoenicians required. Both systems were complex, difficult to learn and use, cuneiform tablets were unsuited to seagoing, and both were often ambiguous to the point of being unintelligible.

The Phoenicians, however, were nothing if not adaptable. They took cuneiform and the hieratic version of hieroglyphics and combined them. Then, sometime before 1400 B.C.E., they took the great step that resulted in the first true alphabet -- they eliminated every character that did not represent a letter sound. They removed thing pictures, idea pictures, whole word pictures, and syllable pictures. This left them with twenty simple characters with which they could write any word that could be spoken. The characters, letters, were only consonants. They didn't apparently need vowels, but this was no hindrance to them (Old Hebrew, a descendant of Phoenician, was also written without vowels and caused no problems, either).

Finally there existed a true alphabet, a system of writing that was clear, simple and unambiguous. Strange as it may seem, the alphabet is the only human invention that has been made only once. The wheel, metallurgy, the lever, etc., have been invented independently by people all over the world many times. Only the Phoenicians invented the alphabet.

However, the evolution of the alphabet wasn't quite finished.


The Greeks, arguably the most intellectually influential people in Western history. Legend has it that Cadmus, a Canaanite prince, brought the alphabet from Phoenicia to Greece. However it was done, the Greeks borrowed 19 letters from the Phoenicians and added vowel letters, eventually ending with their 24 letter alphabet. In less than a hundred years the Romans (then ruled by Etruscan kings) had borrowed the Greek alphabet and adapted it to their own use. They added letters such as C and V which the Greeks, not having those sounds in their language, did not have in their alphabet. They also redrew some of them. From the Romans, through Latin which was the world language during the Roman Empire, came the alphabet we currently use for English.


The invention of alphabetic writing was a major step forward in human intellectual evolution. For the first time ideas, feelings, learning and lore could be passed on easily, not only over distance but over time.

However, if talking is everyone's favorite pastime, writing is most people's least favorite. Few people look forward to putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and try to communicate what they are thinking or feeling.

Until the 20th century, letter writing was the common art. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson are well known to us today, in part, because of the letters they wrote. Samuel Pepys gives us a view of the Black Death through his diaries. It is through the writings of not only the famous but of ordinary people that we know anything about life before the present.

Humans learned to talk hundreds of thousands of years ago. It was the invention of writing, however, that truly lifted humans to a totally different level from all other creatures on earth.

It is writing that allows one person to pass thoughts, ideas, dreams, imaginings, and learnings on without distortion to someone outside the range of that person's voice. If Aristotle, Plato, Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Shakespeare, Locke, Goethe, Schiller, Franklin, Paine, etc., had not committed their thoughts to writing, would we now know of them? The Declaration of Independence, The US Constitution, the Magna Carta, the Pax Romana, the Egyptian Book of the Dead were all in writing to give them the weight of knowledge and the legacy of the future. Hammurabi placed his codes in writing to ensure that nobody could alter them arbitrarily. Pharaohs' pronouncements were written down to give them the power of a god's word. The Christian Bible uses the phrase "It is written . . . " to give what follows greater impact and import than would come from "It is said."

Nonetheless, to many people today, the written word is to be shunned. Writing has become a task, a chore, something to avoid if possible.

Perhaps some of this attitude can be attributed to today's lifestyle. The world operates at a very fast pace. There is not (or at least does not appear to be) sufficient time or leisure to work on the wording of a letter to a friend -- better to use the telephone. There isn't time to sit down and work out the proper wording and grammar and spelling and format and . . . -- let's just talk about it (talking often ignores the rules of grammar, syntax and organization that is demanded of writing).

In addition, the world seems to be relying more and more on sound. Reading was at one time a major avocation of literate people (conversation was the avocation of the illiterate). Now, with a literacy rate of 80% or better, reading is down (5% of the population supports the publishing industry and the average reading rate of the US population is ½ book per year).

What is up is television viewing (average per person in the US is more than 7 hours per day) and stereo use (CDs, portable stereos, boom boxes). Neither of these involves reading or writing.


To counter this trend the teaching of writing turned more and more toward making writing personally satisfying to the individual. The emphasis turned from grammar, spelling, syntax, punctuation and organization to "expressing," or "feeling," or "if it feels right, it doesn't matter if anyone else understands it." Such a move would be a natural one in order to interest students who disliked the chore of so-called proper writing.

However, the effect was to make writing an intra- rather than interpersonal form of communication. It was fine for people to clarify their own feelings to themselves, but not for communicating them to other people -- other people "didn't get it."

Missing (and what many people find boring to learn) was the mechanics of writing. For example, take the following:

"wut i like and wut lots of other peeple dont like i dont no why but thay dont is feeling good about myself i dont wurry about others why should i they dont reely count."

Note the poor spelling, the lack of punctuation, the poor grammar and syntax. It is difficult to read and even more difficult to find the author's intent. The author, of course, understands it well -- putting the ideas into words may even clarify them for the author. Someone who knows the author well may understand it, but nobody else. It is like a diary, not intended for any audience but the author.

However, that is not the intent of most written material. The intent is to be read -- and understood -- by people the author may not and probably does not know. It is necessary, therefore, to follow certain rules and conventions to allow others conversant with them to understand. For example, those conversant with English rules and conventions should understand things written in English, French understand French, Japanese Japanese, German German, Swahili Swahili, etc. etc. (This should, of course, take into account differences in vocabulary levels and technical jargon. The most perfectly written paper will not be understood if the reader doesn't know what the words mean.) If those rules and conventions are violated, then understanding falls in direct proportion to the violations. Eventually it is possible to make what is written impossible to decipher, like a lost language without a key (before Champollion deciphered the Rosetta Stone, hieroglyphics were simply pictures on ancient Egyptian walls).


This chapter is not, and is not intended to be, an English primer. I will not attempt to teach grammar, punctuation, syntax, or spelling. I assume that if you are far enough along in your schooling to be reading this book, you already have a firm grasp of those concepts. However, I will discuss their importance to clear communication.


Remember that words are symbols for impressions. Speaking a word adds vocal and visual cues to the word to aid a listener in understanding. Thus the symbol for the impression being recalled has many clues to help. However, a written word has only its component symbols, the letters. If the wrong letters are used, the impression recalled can be wrong. For example, to, too, and two are all words that sound the same (homonyms). If you write "there are to many ways of doing things," are you referring to quantity (toomany), or making a punctuation error ("There are, to many, ways of doing things."). There are many homonyms, including there (their, they're). Which you intend can completely alter a sentence; which you write does completely alter a sentence.

English spelling is difficult. Words are spelled how they are pronounced, unless they aren't. The way we currently spell can be traced back to William Caxton (c. 1421-1491). Caxton was the first to print a book in English and in England. English spelling was a matter of personal predilection and whim more than standardization. However, it made little difference as long as most writing was confined to handwritten letters and the reader could either decipher the word or couldn't spell any better. Prior to the 14th and 15th centuries, virtually every book was handwritten in Latin, which had a standardized spelling.

Most English spelling was an attempt on the writer's part to use letters and syllables to emulate his/her/its way of pronouncing the word, the dialect. Caxton did the same when he printed his first book, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye in Belgium in 1475, and his second, Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres in England in 1477. From the titles it is clear that Caxton used his own way of pronouncing words to decide how to spell them. For example, he used a Northern England dialect and pronounced sayengis, say-eng-is, rather than the modern say-eengs.

Reading and writing are abstract skills, unlike speaking and hearing. A native language is soaked up more by osmosis than through education. Anyone who is not physio- or psychologically incapable of speech can talk and listen. However, reading and writing are learned skills. A student is taught to translate the abstract marks on a page into "speech", or the reverse.

As long as reading and writing was an esoteric skill, left to clerks, priests, and scholars, spelling wasn't a problem. All were taught as apprentices and all used the same, standardized language (Latin). However, with the invention and wide-spread use of the printing press, more people were reading and writing in their own languages. The lack of standardized spelling caused problems, even leading Benjamin Franklin to propose a new alphabet of 42 letters, one for each pronounced sound (at least, every sound he pronounced).

* Attempts to reform spelling have all met with little success. American spelling is different than British spelling in some cases (color vs. colour, anemia vs. anaemia, etc.), but why not culr or uhneemeeuh?

There are aids available to improve spelling. The easiest is, of course, a computer program with a dictionary. However, even the largest of such dictionaries contain only 300,000 words (seem like a lot? You'd be amazed how often such programs do not recognize words that are spelled correctly).

There are dictionaries, but they're designed in such a way that you have to know how to spell a word to find out how to spell it.

Learning English spelling rules ("i before e except after c" and the like) helps. However, the best is to learn the spelling of as many words as possible. With them as a guide it will be easier to find the word you want to spell in a dictionary. It might not help much with such words as pneumonia or psalter or Featherstonehaugh (pronounced "Fanshaw" believe it or not). nonetheless, it's a good place to start.


Punctuation are those marks that are placed before, between, after, above or below words. Remember that writing is a visual representation of the spoken word. Also remember that the spoken word has inflection and pauses to tell the listener syntax and the relative importance of words in the sentences. The reader does not have the advantage of inflection. Punctuation overcomes this lack in writing.

A good example is the question mark. When spoken, a sentence is turned into a question by the speaker using an upward inflection on the final word. Try it: say the following sentence -- "He is going to town." Now make it a question. Listen to what your voice did; the first time you used a downward inflection, the second time an upward inflection. How would you let a reader, who can't hear your voice, know the inflection? Simple: use a period the first time, a question mark the second. Thus the punctuation is a visual representation of inflection.

Virtually every punctuation mark evolved for this purpose. Commas mean a short pause, parentheses mean "set this phrase apart from the rest of the sentence or paragraph," Quotation marks mean "this is a person speaking so alter the tone."


As with many things, there are tricks that are used regularly to improve the quality of writing. These include previewing, flagging and formatting, and some ideas to make your writing more interesting.


You will often find yourself wanting to discuss several related items under a general heading. The general heading may be one of your main points which you previewed in the introduction to your paper, and the items your subpoints for that main point.

To help your audience through the often maze-like organization of some topics it is useful to treat each main point as a mini-paper. Thus the main point is given its own introduction and preview of the topics you will cover within that main point.

For example, look at the beginning of this chapter section entitled TRICKS OF THE TRADE. That is a main point being covered about the subject of writing. Note that it has a short introduction to the area of TRICKS OF THE TRADE, and that it has a preview of what those tricks are that I will discuss.

Note the advantages of this approach. First, it forces you to organize your writing ahead of time in order to give the preview. Second, it tells you what points you need to cover and thus speeds up your writing.

Third, it tells the audience what you are going to cover. If your readers know what is coming, are given flags to alert them to changes in topic, they are less likely to get lost and more likely to remember what your points are. (In addition, if you are writing a text or self-help book, it makes it easier for the student to study if they know what the important things are to remember.)


A flag is a word or phrase that gets the reader's attention and tells him/her/it that there is a change of discussion. The change may be additional information being provided, a new area of the topic being opened, or a change of pace.

First, Second, Third . . .

Many times you will have a list of considerations you want the reader to be aware of. To keep those considerations distinct it helps to provide your reader with that list, without discussion, in an introductory paragraph. Your reader then knows what is coming and can look for it.

Following paragraphs can contain the discussion of each point. Putting the flags "First," "Second," "Third," etc., followed by a restatement of the point under discussion, makes it clear to the reader when you are changing your discussion to another point.

It also makes it easier for the reader to review your points; he or she can simply look for the flags. If, after reading the restatement of the point the reader understands the point, he/she/it can quickly move to the next. If, on the other hand, he/she/it is unclear about the point, a quick reading of the discussion can clarify it.

In conclusion, In summary . . .

Remember the basic organization of writing or speaking. Your work is divided into Introduction, Body, and Conclusion. Your reader will find it helpful if you say what part of your work you're moving into. It is particularly helpful if you tell your readers that you've finished the in-depth discussion of the body, and are starting the conclusion. Thus they can check whether they have seen and understood all of your points without thinking you're continuing with a new point.

There are, of course, many flags that can be used: in addition, furthermore, also, primary, secondary, etc.. In any case, they are there to help you and your reader through your work.


Formatting is way you put the elements of your work together. It includes chapters, sections, subsections, paragraphing, and listing. As in flagging, the purpose is to make it easier for you and your reader to construct and understand your work.

The first thing to consider is how you will present your final work. It has become a virtual rule that it must be typed. No matter how clear your penmanship, it cannot approach the clarity of typing. If you don't know how to type, learn, hire someone, or cultivate a friendship.

Second, follow standard typing formats. Paragraphs are indented five spaces, commas and semi-colons are followed by one space, periods and colons are followed by two spaces. It is also strongly advised to double-spaced between lines; it's easier to read.

There are also other tricks that make it easier for your reader to follow your train of thought.

Heads and Subheads

When you have a variety of points you want to make, it helps to divide them up into distinct units and label each unit. These labels are heads and subheads. A head is the label on a major division of your paper. For example, in this chapter about writing there are several major divisions. One is THE HISTORY OF WRITING. That heading tells you what the following discussion will be about.

Subheads are subdivisions of a major division. The subheads in THE HISTORY OF WRITING include Prehistory, Sumerians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Greeks and Romans.

The use of heads and subheads makes it clear, both to you and to your reader, what this part of your work will be about. It helps you by forcing you to stick to the point and not wander off into a discussion of something other than what is currently under discussion. It helps the reader by telling him/her/it what to concentrate on at that point, and aids in quickly reviewing your material.

You may sometimes find it helpful to further subdivide a section into subsubheads or even subsubsubheads. Of course, don't get carried away. If several points are related, they should probably go together in a single section.


Many times you will have a list of points that you want your reader to consider. By numbering each item on the list it makes each point distinct, and a point can be referred to by number to help keep them straight. Two ways of numbering can be: 1) in a paragraph, using punctuation to separate each point; and 2) in a list form such as:

1) in a paragraph, using punctuation to separate each point 2) in a list form.

Please note that in either case there is an introductory sentence fragment that states what the list is about and how many items there are in the list.


Bullets are simply marks of one kind or another that are placed at the beginning of each item in a list. The mark can be an asterisk, a period, a star, or whatever you have available. The standard bullet is a period.

A bulleted list is much like a numbered list. However, bullets are more commonly used when the list is simply one of features or factors about your point, and not items that will need further discussion. They are particularly helpful in a summary of points after they have been discussed as a reminder to your reader of what you've discussed.


I'm certain you've found many books or papers that were dull, uninteresting, boring or opaque to read. If the purpose of writing is to be read, it helps if the writing isn't boring to the reader. To make your writing more interesting there are a few techniques you might try.

Sentence Length

Two considerations in sentence length are how long and how often the same.

First, long sentences are often convoluted and try to say too much at a time. It is a good idea to keep your sentences under 23 words in length. Why 23? It's like the rule of three: it simply works best that way. Longer than 23 words in row and the odds are you are trying to say too much in one sentence. Break the sentence up if they start to get too long.

Second, vary your sentence length. Too many sentences of approximately the same length in a row is like the Chinese water torture: it gets monotonous. Mix long and short sentences. You'll find your information flows better and makes more sense, to you and your reader.

Passive vs Active Voice

Aim for the active voice rather than the passive in your writing. The passive voice emphasizes the acted upon rather than the actor. The active voice emphasizes the actor. For example, look at the following:

Passive voice: The place was arrived at, was observed, and was duly overtaken.

Note how long and indirect the statement is. Now see the same statement using the active voice, in which who does something is emphasized:

I came, I saw, I conquered.

Note there are fewer words (thus helping with sentence length) and the words used are more forceful.

The passive voice generally uses some form of the verb "to be" (is, was, has been, are, etc.). It results in a statement that is indirect rather than to the point. It can also be frustrating to the reader as he/she/it tries to find out who did what was done. For example, "the technical report was completed." Who completed it? The passive voice doesn't tell you.

There are, of course, times when you want to use the passive voice. In such instances, it doesn't matter who or what does something, simply that it was done. "The information was sorted into the appropriate pigeonholes" is an example. It doesn't matter who sorted the information, just that it was done.


Overqualifying is adding words to your sentences that add nothing and often subtract. Overusing adjectives or qualifiers can make it seem that you are trying to cover your ass, not your subject. "It almost seems as if the possibility perhaps exists" means "I don't know what I'm talking about," or "I'm not sticking my neck out." If you're not willing to accept responsibility for what you say, don't say anything; you're not worth listening to.


The points made in this chapter will not make you a great writer. That requires more than any book can possibly do. By bearing in mind the points made above, you can avoid some of the errors common to bad writing.

Good writing is not that difficult. All it takes is practice. The more you write, the easier and more fun it will be. Avoiding writing simply because you consider it tedious is like never learning to walk because you fell down a lot. And when the time comes, as it surely will, that you must write, you won't have a clue how to do so.

Start now. Don't call a friend, write a letter. Don't be concerned with style or formality; simply write. When you call you start with "Hi." Do the same. End with "Bye." In between tell you friend about something.

Now read the letter. Did you leave something out? Do you think of a better way to say something? Fine. Rewrite it.

Do this a few times and the number of rewrites will drop and the content and organization will improve. You might even enjoy it.

Do the same with something more formal. Everyone has something in which they are interested, be it sports or television or crewel or . . .. Now write something about it. Don't worry -- you're the only one who's going to read it. Explain what an RBI or touchdown is, or why you like a particular show, or the best thread to use. Just have fun. Every time you write, try to improve something. Don't try to do it all at once. Do this often enough and you'll soon find writing is not a chore to be avoided, but fun.

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